It is almost exactly four hundred years since the original Globe Theatre burned to the ground in June 1613, destroying at a stroke the professional home of William Shakespeare and one unfortunate play-goer's breeches (he was saved when a neighbour promptly doused him with ale). Today, the modern reconstruction is one of London's most iconic heritage attractions and each day draws thousands of visitors to its stunning open-air performances and permanent museum exhibition.
The works of Shakespeare have for centuries lain at the heart of our cultural heritage, and have been thrust back into the forefront of the public imagination in recent weeks, on stage, on screen and in major new exhibitions. Those at the Globe have been busying themselves with an impressive international festival, scheduling performances in 37 languages around the world. However, perhaps bowing deferentially to the curatorial might of the British Museum, it is business as usual in their exhibition and theatre space.
Giving a gentle introduction to Shakespeare's world and words, the galleries touch upon entertainments on the early modern Bankside (the 'Las Vegas' of the sixteenth century), historical performance and modern authenticity, and Shakespeare's continuing relevance at the centre of our national consciousness and identity. The opening section displays some genuine artefacts unearthed in the excavations of the theatre site, giving a glimpse of Falstaff's London: Tudor ale tankards, gaming pieces, the skulls of animals killed in bloodsports arenas, a gentleman's dagger. These objects aside, however, there seems to be little interpretation or expression of the liveliness of early modern life beyond contemporary accounts written onto the walls and a heavy reliance on material likely to be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the era.
However, the galleries that follow remind us exactly where we are, and why we are here. Exploring the costumes, special effects, music and theatre construction of both the original Globe and how they have been faithfully recreated in modern times, they add a refreshingly open behind-the-scenes perspective. This more focused and unique angle continues in displays of stage props (huge artificial bear included), and audio recordings immortalising the most famous performances of the last century, both of which offer a fascinating glimpse into how Shakespeare is continually reinterpreted and represented. One interactive section even allows visitors to take on the roles themselves - I attempted to do justice to Juliet's balcony scene and failed magnificently.
In fact, despite the exhibition's opening weaknesses in terms of originality of content, it concludes with a focus on fun and accessibility: during my relatively short visit alone, there were entertaining demonstrations of sword-fighting and characters wearing Elizabethan costume. The theatricality with which visitors are met with - a sweeping mezzanine gallery and huge indoor tree - is fantastic and could really be developed to evoke a truly unique spirit of drama and history.
For the moment at least, the exhibition alone is certainly not where the magic lies. The crucial point of interest is of course in the replica theatre itself, painstakingly authentic down to the Tudor brickwork and the thatched roof. The exhibition ticket allows admission to the theatre, but I would heartily recommend booking the guided tour, which really brings to life the experiences of those visiting the Shakespearean theatre, from the groundling "penny stinkers" to the most well-heeled of patrons. As a working theatre, the whole impression is one of liveliness and energy, and the genuine enthusiasm of the guides for the Globe's intriguing history and continuing work shines through (incidentally, the foreign language provisions are also excellent). To truly get a sense of what makes the Globe such a treasured part of the city's heritage, you must do more than visit the exhibition. Book the tour and, most importantly, go to see a play. It is the closest we can get to experiencing Shakespearean theatre, and it truly is a wonder.